RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia has rejected unsolicited bids by two companies to operate a state facility that detains violent sex offenders for treatment after their sentences are completed.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press show that state officials who evaluated the proposals concluded that GEO Group, a private prisons operator based in Boca Raton, Fla., focused too much on incarceration and not enough on treatment. Liberty Healthcare Corp. of Bala Cynwyd, Pa., scored better on treatment but would have charged the state $2.4 million a year more than it is spending to run the facility itself.

Therapy is a key issue because courts have ruled that the indefinite commitment of sex offenders after they have served their prison time is constitutional as long as the goal is treatment, not punishment.

The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services received the GEO and Liberty proposals in 2011 under a 2002 Virginia law authorizing public-private partnerships.

“Following the thorough evaluation that was conducted of the unsolicited bids, DBHS found the existing operation is comparable to or better than the proposals and there was not a long-term financial advantage to the Commonwealth,” department spokeswoman Meghan McGuire said in an email. She said that while officials appreciated the bids, they concluded that privatization of the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation in Burkeville at this time “is not the best direction for Virginia.”

The treatment center was originally built to house 300 patients in private rooms, but the 2011 General Assembly ordered the department to double-bunk half the rooms to expand capacity to 450. McGuire said the center now houses 327 and is projected to exceed capacity by 2016.

The department informed the companies of the decision in January, but the development went unnoticed by opponents of the privatization proposals. Carla Peterson, executive director of the inmate advocacy group Virginia CURE, said she was “pleasantly surprised.”

“We always think it’s a good thing when they don’t privatize a prison, and that’s what this is — a prison — no matter what they say,” Peterson said in a telephone interview. “Our members felt that if a for-profit organization runs it, nobody’s ever going to get out of there. I’m pleased to hear it’s not going to happen.”

Mary Davey Devoy, an advocate for reform of Virginia’s sex offender laws, said she was especially pleased to hear that GEO’s bid was rejected. Some inmates at a facility in Florida have complained they are not getting proper care, which prompted protests when GEO recently acquired naming rights for the football stadium at Florida Atlantic University.

“They are a business through and through,” Devoy said. “They are not about rehabilitation. If they don’t have bodies in the beds, they don’t have a business.”

GEO did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Kenneth Carabello, vice president of Liberty, said the company appreciated the opportunity to bid but understood the state’s decision.

“There were some pricing structure impediments we kind of ran into, and we certainly understand the budgetary situation and the state’s need to be as efficient as possible,” said Carabello, who added that Liberty would be open to trying again but has no immediate plans to do so.

Letters to the companies by James W. Stewart III, commissioner of Virginia’s behavioral health department, informing them of the department’s decision did not specify why the bids were rejected. However, written evaluations of the proposals obtained by the AP showed Liberty’s proposal was too costly and GEO’s was too corrections-oriented.

“Lack of emphasis on rehab treatment program,” the analysis of GEO’s proposal said of the only other civil commitment program for sex offenders operated by the company. Another notation said the program was “more correctional than therapy related.”

The department’s comments on Liberty’s proposal were generally more positive, noting that the company has 14 years of relevant experience and that most of its executives have a clinical background. “Evidence of skills necessary to operate facility,” the report says.

Officials noted in the documents that the weakness in Liberty’s proposal was cost. It would have charged $29.7 million each year to run the facility, even though Virginia spends less — $27.3 million. GEO’s bid was about $22.9 million.

The department has no plans to solicit bids for operating the Burkeville facility, McGuire said.

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(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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